Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

UPDATE (14/11/2013)

WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE

Original Review below.

The coming of age novel is not an under cooked format. Airport bookshelves are dotted with the neo-plotted , hollow ,saccharine, single mother who cannot handle all this childcare and shopping stories, or the new 50 shades era that arguably degrade the whole for that one author’s commercial gain. I find it hilarious when people refer to E.L James as a pariah; writing dross about submissive women, selling out to film producers at the drop of a hat. From the first word though, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by debut novelist Eimear McBride is a renegade against commercial fiction and an attempt to tell the truth about what it means to come of age,
“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear you say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, i’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day”
Immediately it conjures James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’s opening lines, of the father teaching his son about the ‘moo-cow’ and the ‘baby tuckoo’, but unlike Joyce’s classic text, where Stephen Dedalus gradually mature’s from those juvenile perceptions, McBride’s protagonist (nameless, and so are all the other characters) stays with this immediate conception of her life. Within a dozen pages or so you become accustomed to this and fully in immersed In the novel.
The allusions to Joyce come naturally, but it becomes apparent that there is another dimension to McBride’s work. Like Stephen Dedalus, the narrator’s life is cast from early infancy to her early 20’s. Her brother’s illness boils away in the background whilst the protagonist must tackle with the identity crisis of her emerging years. Where Joyce chose to prescribe Dedalus his by dipping in and out of his conscioussness, Macbride fully immerses the reader into the chaotic, reactionary mind of this female.

Dedalus’ mission was to break free from the religious dogma to become the artist, A Girl is a… is striving for something with a much greater pretext and fluid – her identity. Religion is a constant presence throughout her life. The ‘Holy Family’ as she refers to it in her early days,
“Such worshipping worshipping behind the bedroom door. with their babies and babies lining up like stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up.”
Gradually though, the religion that she is forced to live under, accept and live by enters her processing consciousness and leaks out into her frantic thoughts. When she starts coming into her sexuality in her early teens, it poses the kind of questions a life under religion does, and in doing so McBride mocks and goads Catholicism; its oppressive, old fashioned views on sexuality. In fact it is quite scathing (welcomingly) and see’s it as another force of oppression for her narrator and the female in the search for identity. MacBride introduces the girl’s Uncle who throughout the novel, constantly manipulates and exploits his niece for sex. It is brave, bold, and unflinchingly graphic at times, but important. The narrator is then continually at odds with this religious thought and her own natural development
“Two stairs. Three at a time if I can. Leave it. Sitting room. Watching there the telly all of them. I’ll be on my own. Be quiet insides. Don’t be fucked up. I will wait. This out. He’ll [Uncle] be gone. Quite soon. I’ll be pure to then. I will. It’ll be. It’ll be. Fine”
And then, she will resort to Jesus and Mary in times of despair, like most people resort to, believers or not. Religion is the one that blames the narrator for the way she is, her urges, temptations which should be,completely natural. In a vicious, circular way, in her times of desperation, religion becomes the empty, non-fulfilling savior. McBride allows religion to skew the picture like it does in life.

Interestingly this leads to the questioning of the man in McBride’s novel. They are a very strange breed in a A Girl…As mentioned, there is the Uncle, and the other formidable male presence of the brother battling a brain tumour, which she sometimes resorts to blaming herself for. But while she watches him dying, she also watches him literally waist his life away. He doesn’t display the urgent need to fill a bucket list before he goes, but just watches his days go by. Then there is the absent father, who emerges died when she was young. It is never spoken of in straight terms, and never digressed, but allows for the religious element to be explored further.
“Don’t turn your face from the father or he’ll turn his face from you” and “no sign of the feckless father” are a couple of the ambiguous statements uttered In the household. The absence of the father and man in her life ties in with MacBride’s further scathing of religion. The male image of God is the predominant male figure in the narrator’s life, but he is constantly leaving her stranded, never answering her desperate prayers. Like any poor father, he is not there to be that paragon male figure that everybody, as a natural birth right deserves. And then as the overbearing witness to his daughters development “Don’t let the father see you doing that”, religion is no replacement for the compassion that a father would bring.

To return to Joyce and the stream of conscioussness, it is not that straight forward and easy to categorise. Her narrator’s scope isn’t as all encompassing as somebody like Stephen Dedalus’ with less allusions and digressions, but it is a different subject matter with different achievements as already mentioned. If anything, it is the narrator’s need to break free from religious thinking to just live her life in non-apparent sin and blame. It is also distinctly chronological in a linear coming of age way. The prose if anything more closely mirrors, Samuel Beckett’s How It Is. cBride manages to keep the style from getting tiresome, and it is a lot easier to get along with than somebody like Joyce’s, certainly Beckett’s, even Woolfe’s but they’re different eras for different audiences. Instead we are restricted to the narrator’s battling conscious and unconscious. Eros and Thanatos are duelling, and there is a persistent tussle between the drive to destruction and the drive to procreate. Most often they are confused. To pluck a line from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle ‘the course taken by mental events is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle…[associated] with an avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure’ best embodies what is going on in the narrator’s mind.  It has an almost Baudelaireian view on sex and is difficult to view it as beautiful or destructive.

There is a constant allusion, and return to sea imagery, which is more reminiscent of Woolfe as if a metaphor for her equilibrium and state of mind, “Strange. Pushed out to the ocean of school. Wave back occasionally to her shore”. This is an easy metaphor to explore when the narrator is trying conceptualise her life, but it sustains and provides some poetic images, and is particularly powerful towards the end of the novel. In fact the last part of the novel is one of the strongest I have read this year. It also provides respite from the immediate cluttered perceptions of the narrator, and is not only escape for her but for the reader as well.

It will be very interesting to see where McBride goes next. Here is a writer with a clear message and an apparent anger, and a sanctity of hope that publishers still want to publish new and daring works that do not may not have a commercial credentials. We should be thankful to Galley Beggar Press, as McBride has said in a recent interview that the bigger presses didn’t seem viable. A new voice, backed by Galley Beggar, not only that it is one with a cause, but one against the tides.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride is out now (240pp), published by Galley Beggar Press (£11). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

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Stoner.

People like to forebode the book world, its impending doom as it converts to portable electronic devices, but this is one event that might cause those to reconsider their prophecies. Stoner, by the largely forgotten American author is a bestseller in the Netherlands (at the time of writing) and its revival seems to be predominated by the old fashioned word-of mouth-success, and new-fashioned word-of-mouth success, namely Twitter. Its not a 50 shades of grey kind of hysteria that asks you to break out of your comfort zone to be seen reading it in public, there is however, a sense of guilt  pervading the twinging joy of contemporary fiction fans and booksellers.

When it was first published it sold a meagre 2000 copies, even more meagre now considering the book was still a popular choice of entertainment. Television was on the rise though, and advertising was becoming the ubiquitous phenomenon we know it to be now (although emptier). Despite some voicing their bemusement as to why it was not appreciated at the time of its publication (Irving Howe for one) Stoner disappeared quietly into the annals of literary history. Williams enjoyed relative, later success with his 1973 historical novel, Augustus which won the National Book Award, but it was overshadowed by other novelists working at the time, like Thomas Pynchon, who holds a firm seat in the literary pantheon. The writers working then were changing the landscape. Williams style was amidst a frenzied, emerging movement of postmodernism, spear-headed by the likes of Pynchon and Vonnegut. Even Roth’s baroque and lewd Portnoy’s Complaint was only 5 years away and putting that and Stoner together they look to be conceived centuries apart. One built on repression of instincts, the other and absurd projection. Williams looked as if he was wanting to rekindle the past, not change the present.

It nod’s towards the Flaubertian style of realism; acute and precise free indirect discourse which was paving the way for modernist style of introspection and consciousness in an essentially Bildungsromman .There is an irony in the novel’s treatment from 1965 to the present day with the novel itself. It is about an ordinary, distinctly average academic from a simple pre-technological age who gets forgotten by his University and his students. The first paragraph lays all this out like a spoiler:
‘He did not rise above assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses… An older student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a simple question. Stoner’s colleagues who held him in no particular style when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.
Its as if it is setting up its own downfall when the trickery of a novelist to open with what is essentially, a spoiler. Who would want to read about an average man who lives an average life, in a unhappy marriage and dies, when they could read about sex and underground mail companies? Updike had paved this ground long before.

William Stoner comes from nothing, literal and metaphorical darkness. At seventeen, his shoulders are already beginning to stoop, since he had been working on his parents farm from six. There is a single light in the room which the family of three gather round on an evening. But then he goes to study agriculture at University, the first of his family to do so, but instead  he becomes enamoured with his compulsory English classes, and drops the study of agriculture and enrols full time in English.

An epiphany of sorts is provoked by his admiration of the hard faced English tutor, clearly averse to freshman blankness, as he picks on Stoner  to explain Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. The whole class do not seem to know this when picked on by Sloane, and it inspires Stoner’s study. But why do the whole class not know what it means, and why would it inspire Stoner to drop agriculture and pursue the arts​​? None of them are able to shed a morsel of intuition on it. Here is the sonnet itself:

​That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long”

There is dispute as to what the sonnet actually means in scholarly circles, but from reading it is clearly pensive about life and death. There is a great dispute about the directedness of it and whether It is about the reader’s or the writer’s own life he is writing about. Some critics say that it is about the loss of youth. Is this Sloane’s personal choice rather than curricular? A later scene shows Stoner catching a glimpse of Sloane weeping at his desk after the end of WWI, maybe at the great loss of young life there.

The sonnet does not allude to a greater place after death, and focuses on the natural rhythms of nature. It slowly becomes something that the young students have no way of comprehending. If they were to know the meaning of sonnet 73 then it would expose them to a kind of depressing truth about life – that death is inevitably. And as we see Sloane weeping, it’s something that holds a truth for him. The sonnet however gives us some indication as the kind of existence Stoner leads: ““This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” John Prince (The Explicator, 1997) claims that this line is the greatest evidence that this is about the loss of the reader’s youth. Bitter Sloane, and naïve Stoner, the endured and the about to endure.

The sense of light and dark In the novel ,as metaphors for greater things pervades the novel. Williams plays with darkness both atmospherically but also as if it is a state of mind. Take this from early in the novel:
Sometimes in the attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows. If he stared long and intently, the darkness gathered into a light, which took the insubstantial shape of what he had been reading. And he would feel that he was out of time, as he had felt that day in class when Arthur Sloane had spoke to him. The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted from which he could not escape and no wish that he could escape
He is then abruptly brought out of his reverie by a clanking radiator. It starts off with that question that overhangs the novel; in any other context cliché and banal, wondering whether life is worth living but descends into a sensual introspection of his mind. The dark and the light becomes a state of mind, dualist in essence as the physical and psychological inhibit different spheres as it ‘sucks at his body’ until he leaves it and becomes an inhabited consciousness. There is clear tension in his awakened consciousness, but the dark recesses of his unconsciousness continue to surface.

This is more evident in Stoner’s sexual exploits, especially when considering Edith; his sex is conducted in the dark, or in artificial light from a bulb. With his mistress, Katherine their sex is conducted under the natural light from the fire, and the heat it emits. His love with Katherine seems to be purely erotic but there is love with it: ” he began to know It was neither a state of grace nor an illusion [love]; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment, and day by day, by the will and intelligence of the heart”. It is the only thing Stoner seems powerless to control. With Edith, there is only one instance we are told of their love making, and that is to produce a child. Edith comes across as the Emma Bovary that didn’t get to tell her side of the story, (and inhabits the bourgeoisie ideals that Flaubert derided in Charles Bovary) when Stoner meets her, she comes across as a truly flat character. She displays apathy, and the reader is continually irritated by her neurotic ways, at odds with the sympathetic Stoner.

As if Freud’s two greatest drives of life were at odds, sex and death, we are continually reminded of the mortality of the characters. Stoner comes from nothing, and works on his parents farm that seems to produce nothing as if the land Stoner’s family harvest is the land that they will return to in death. Stoner is reminded at fatality initially at the death of his friend David Masters in WWI, a young confident mind, wasted which also maybe what we see a glimpse of Sloane weeping at. Stoner then has to confront death formidably when his father dies. He returns to Booneville which is portrayed as neglected when Stoner left, as if Stoner he only redeeming hope, “the town retained its bareness and its flimsiness …it was perhaps drier and greyer than it had been; not even a fleck of paint remained on the clapboard, and he unpainted timber porch sagged a bit nearer the bare earth” . At the funeral he looks at his dead father, who is not heavenly and peaceful looking on his way to a better place but is described with adjectives like ‘shrunken’, ‘tiny’ and ‘grotesquely’. And on visiting the small plot where his father is buried Stoner “Knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand . He broke it and watched the grains, dark in moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers”. Quite literally, ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

When Stoner is reminded of his rapid acceleration towards his own death. discussing retirement with life long friend Gordon Finch , Williams is gradually taking us towards the inevitable and it is not something that he ambiguously hints at. His life becomes purely sensual as the physical deterioration of his body leaves his mind loosely intact as he lays in the conservatory, a room that is subject to being lit through its transparent roof by the sun or the moon. That inner monologue displayed in his college office becomes the sole narrative now; the world once lived is distant sounds and then gone and Williams leaves us on the precipice of death or near languishing death.

The passage is broken by several “What did you expect? He thought” as if underwhelmed by death and the empty promise of after life, “He felt that he was waiting for something for some knowledge; but it seemed to him that he had all the time in the world.” And with that, we return to Shakespeare’s 73
rd sonnet. Was this the quest all along for Stoner? I think it was, and does he ever answer the question that Sloane first pitted to him that embarrassed him front of the freshman corpus? No. Cruelly though Williams does, in the fate of William Stoner. Lines 9-12 of Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet:
“In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on ashes of his youth doth lie
As the death-bed whereupon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by”
Williams perhaps produced the greatest answer to one of the many puzzling aspects of Shakespeare’s life in one of his most alluring sonnets.